Rugby: Singapore perfect for Super Rugby

Tournament organiser says Republic ideally located for rugby to grow and attract fans

Brendan Morris of Super Rugby organiser Sanzar has set sights on expanding the sport in the South-east Asian market through Singapore.
Brendan Morris of Super Rugby organiser Sanzar has set sights on expanding the sport in the South-east Asian market through Singapore.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

There are other nations with a strong rugby culture in South-east Asia, with the likes of (world No. 48) Malaysia and Thailand (No. 59) being viable options to break into the region's market.

But Singapore was chosen as the second home of the Japanese Super Rugby outfit Sunwolves because of the 57th-ranked Republic's geographical location and superior facilities, said Brendan Morris, operations manager for tournament organiser Sanzar.

"(Playing home games in Singapore) not only opened us to a new market, but it was also a perfect fit logistically as it was a halfway spot between South Africa and Tokyo," said the 49-year-old Australian in a media interview yesterday.

As one of the new expansion sides in the 18-team competition alongside Argentinian outfit the Jaguares, the Sunwolves will play in the South African Conference.

Morris added of the 55,000-capacity National Stadium: "It's arguably one of the better stadiums that have existed in Super Rugby... when you have a blue-chip brand like Super Rugby, you want to make sure you're going to world-class facilities and embracing world-class fans."

The 39-man squad will play three of their eight home matches at the National Stadium while the other five will be held back in Tokyo. The Sunwolves will play their first match in Singapore on Saturday against South African side the Cheetahs. This will be followed by visits from the Bulls (March 26) and the Stormers (May 14).

Morris noted that world No. 12 Japan also "fits the mould" as the 20-year-old competition seeks to break into the Asian market, citing its huge fan base, established domestic competition (Top League) and competitive national team.

"Looking at the commercial and rugby opportunities, and the logistical challenges around expansion, a combination of Japan and Singapore was very attractive for Sanzar," he said.

The Japanese national rugby team exceeded expectations at last year's World Cup, winning three pool games including a stunning victory over giants South Africa.

However, the Sunwolves have not mirrored the national side's slick operations. Hastily assembled and recruiting coach Mark Hammett only in December, there were concerns over their readiness.

But Morris was encouraged by the team's performance in their first match against South African outfit the Lions on Feb 27, when the Sunwolves lost 13-26.

He said: "The Sunwolves were not only competitive, they were dominating in certain facets in the game. It's early days for them… we've got to be mindful that they've had a very limited preparation, so the performance they put in was fantastic to see."

But it remains to be seen if the Japanese team will attract the numbers the pre-match hype has been building towards. The match against the Lions at the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium saw all 25,000 seats filled but organisers declined to reveal the volume of ticket sales for Saturday's game.

But with a minimum of three games every year for five years confirmed, Morris is confident expanding into the regional market through Singapore is a sound move.

He said: "You can't just rely on your home-based fans. You've got to grow your brand out to be successful in a global sense, you've got to expose yourself to territories with a bigger fan group.

"While (the Sunwolves) may be a Japan-based team, they are representing Asia in Super Rugby. They want to embrace the communities across Asia, to represent them in the strongest global rugby competition in the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore perfect for Super Rugby'. Subscribe